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Everyone likes Iceland — except the teams that have to play it

One game into its first World Cup, Iceland has already become the darling of the tournament. And it’s not hard to see why.

In a sport dominated by pampered, stern-faced millionaires, Iceland’s roster is filled with giddy, blue-collar grinders. Its coach, Heimir Hallgrímsson, is a dentist who still sees patients in between training camps. Its right back, Birkir Saevarsson, works at a salt-packing factory and plans to go to school after the World Cup.

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“It keeps things in the life normal,” he said. “Staying at home and doing nothing makes me a little lazy and a little soft.”

Then there’s goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, the guy who preserved Iceland’s 1-1 draw with Argentina in the team’s tournament opener Saturday with a diving save of a penalty kick by Lionel Messi.

Messi reportedly makes $70 million a year playing for super club Barcelona. When he isn’t stopping shots for tiny Danish club Randers, Halldorsson supports himself as a film director, with his best-known project being Iceland’s video entry for the 2012 Eurovision song contest.

Iceland's players attend a training session on June 17 during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament.
Iceland's players attend a training session on June 17 during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. (Jonathan Nackstrand/ AFP/Getty Images)

“I think everybody likes our team except the teams we play against,” Halldorsson said . “We’re underdogs, we fight for each other. We fight for the love of football and our country.”

That was apparent against Argentina, with Iceland playing like a team while the South Americans played like a collection of individuals. Iceland’s well-organized defense kept as many as nine men behind the ball, selflessly absorbing unrelenting pressure from some of the world’s best — and best-paid — attacking players.

“It’s football at its purest,” Halldorsson said. “We really don’t fear anybody. But also deep down we know that we come from Iceland. There is always this feeling that maybe they are going to crush us. Maybe that’s also what keeps us on our toes; that we are always a bit worried that we might get smacked.”

Iceland’s game plan wasn’t complicated and it wasn’t entertaining, but it was effective, with David bloodying Goliath’s nose. And when it was over, the smallest country ever to play in a World Cup celebrated like it had won one.

“People are saying, ‘Why do you celebrate a point like you won the game?’” Hallgrímsson said. “But just wait and see when we win a game. That’s going to be a celebration.”

Salah expected to return

With Egypt facing likely elimination in Tuesday’s Group A game with Russia, coach Hector Cuper is hoping to have record-setting striker Mohamed Salah available.

Salah, who set a Premier League record with 32 goals for Liverpool this season, sustained a shoulder injury in last month’s European Championship. And though Cuper pronounced him fit for Egypt’s first World Cup match with Uruguay, Salah watched the 1-0 loss from the bench.

“We wanted to avoid any risks in this match,” Cuper said after the opener “but I think he will be fine for the next game."

Without at least a draw against Russia, Egypt’s path to the second round would be all but blocked while Russia, with a win, would secure its first-ever berth in the knockout round of a World Cup.

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